story by Kim Souza
Gov. Mike Beebe took full advantage of the power and influence in the room when he broached the topic of Medicaid expansion with the members of the Northwest Arkansas Council and a few business leaders visiting from Fort Smith.
Beebe was the featured speaker at the Council’s annual meeting in Springdale on Wednesday (June 26).
“I am not going to talk about education or taxes, but I am going to get controversial today because I have nothing to lose,” he said.
Beebe was referring to his signing the recent health expansion measure known as the Medicaid expansion, or private option, into law. The law outlines the framework for allowing Arkansas to use Medicaid expansion money from the federal government to subsidize health insurance for low-income workers.
“It’s going to be a hot topic as some people are working to get it on a referendum ballot and it has to be funded by the state legislature every year. It’s not an over and done-with deal,” Beebe said.
Proponents say the primary benefit of the law will be to provide uninsured citizens who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level to obtain insurance. By some state estimates, that universe could include as many as 250,000 Arkansans. For the first three years, Beebe said, the federal government will pay for the care of these qualifying Arkansans, because the state has opted into the plan.
He said opting into the expansion program was necessary to help keep rural hospitals in the state open.
“Our hospitals were going to pay for expanding health care whether we, as a state, opted to get the federal stipend or not. In the case of UAMS, the added cost was $28 million annually, an ongoing expense,” Beebe told the group.
He added not a single hospital in the state was immune from these added costs.
Beebe said Northwest Arkansas is a large influencer within the state, and business leaders who enjoy the economic success of this region also have a responsibility to be informed and educate others on important topics such as health care reform.
“You can’t just sit in a back room somewhere and make money, though I want you to make lots of money and keep hiring more people. But, there is also a public responsibility that goes along with that leadership,” he said.
At the end of the day, Beebe said, voting for Medicaid expansion was not a vote for Obama Care; nor was it vote against Obama Care.
“It was trying to make the best out a situation the state was faced with and keep from further taxing our business community,” Beebe said.
He estimates the costs to businesses across the state without the federal stipend to be $38 million, which is why he said heaven and earth were moved to get the necessary votes in both chambers of the Republican controlled legislature. Beebe commended the state legislature for working together on this issue saying the lawmakers in Washington should take note.
He said there is a battle ahead on this issue and Northwest Arkansas needs to help influence what is at stake for the business community in the face of the ballot referendum.
In other news, John Tyson handed the co-chair seat over to Mark Simmons for this next year. It’s the first time in the nonprofit organization’s 23 years that a Siloam Springs resident has held the Council’s top position.
Simmons is chairman of Simmons Foods, a company started in 1949 by his father, M.H. “Bill” Simmons. Mark Simmons was a founding member of the Northwest Arkansas Council. He worked with Sam Walton, Alice Walton, Don Tyson, John Tyson and J.B. Hunt in the establishment of the organization in 1990.
Simmons announced that the Northwest Arkansas Council would work with partners to evaluate progress on the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy. The strategy is a five-year plan, unveiled in January 2011. It describes more than 50 strategic actions being pursued by the Council and its partner organizations throughout the region.
The strategic plan addresses such things as embracing the region’s increasingly diverse population, improving schools and highways, developing a regional wayfinding system, increasing access to physical activity and healthy food, developing young leaders, ensuring that existing businesses are finding success, attracting the talent companies need to be successful, and marketing Northwest Arkansas to companies considering relocation and expansions.
“We need to know how we’re doing, and where we need to focus our energy over the next two and a half years,” Simmons said. “We think we’re on a good course, but an outside review is important.”
The Council has a history of being led by Northwest Arkansas’ top business leaders and executives. It was led by chair Alice Walton when the organization was first established and then former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt took over in 1993.
Tyson also encouraged Northwest Arkansas business leaders to continue reaching out to the business community of Fort Smith, saying that together there is more the two regions can accomplish, much the way Little Rock and Conway combine efforts on larger issues.
Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, and Tim Allen, president of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, attended the annual meeting as invited guests of the Council.